The ‘Right to Die’ and ‘Rational Suicide’: a human rights perspective

by Victoria Casey, Human Rights Research Journal, May 2016

Ms Casey is a Wellington barrister specialising in public law who represented the Care Alliance as intervener in Seales v Attorney-General in the High Court in 2015.

Victoria University law school hosted a symposium on the case earlier this year, and the papers by Ms Casey, Professor Paul Morris and Dr Andrew Butler (lead counsel for Ms Seales) have now been published online.

Ms Casey argues that “the ‘rights’ argument put forward by advocates for assisted suicide and euthanasia is not valid, and that there is a real risk that the voices and particular world view of those in positions of strength and power who support a change in the law are simply drowning out the voices of the less able.”

The question that needs to be asked is why now, with access to the best medical and palliative care that has ever been available, are some sectors of society calling for the state to facilitate suicide or euthanasia of the dying and/or the irremediably ill? From the evidence in Seales, the answer appears to be about the fear of losing control, and the fear of becoming dependent, disabled, reliant on others, of being ‘less’ than the person was when they were well. As Justice Collins explained in Seales:

Ms Seales’ desire to control the final stages of her death is a common trait amongst those in society who consider themselves to be successful and driven … [people like Ms Seales find the effects of such illnesses] particularly intolerable because of the loss of autonomy and inability to manage their lives is directly contrary to the things they value.

One of the more disturbing aspects to this case was the characterisation of the day-to-day lives of disabled people as lacking fundamental human dignity. In support of the argument that the ban on assisted suicide constituted degrading treatment, counsel for the plaintiff submitted that the increasing level of physical disability and dependence on others for her personal care “endured” by Ms Seales “would humiliate and debase her”, was “gravely humiliating”, and that denying assisted suicide “forced [her] to endure degradation”.

Put simply: at the heart of arguments for assisted suicide is a belief that some lives – lives that are physically or intellectually compromised – are not worth living. That attitude devalues the lives of disabled people. The casual and perhaps unthinking equating of physical and intellectual disability with lack of human dignity in the legal argument in Seales is perhaps a telling demonstration of the dangers that the disabled community face with this law change.

Click here to read the full article.

Click here to read the judgment and affidavits in Seales v Attorney-General.